June 28, 2004 – Immigration agents have arrested hundreds of undocumented workers and immigrants in Southern California this month in sweeps that are causing widespread fear in local immigrant and Latino communities. People have taken to the streets in response to the detention of as many as 500 immigrants, and groups are currently planning a large demonstration for this Tuesday.
In light of recent protests and pressure from lawmakers, Department of Homeland Security officials announced Friday they would review the policy.
The sweeps, which began on June 1 and have been conducted well inside the US/Mexico border, have had a marked impact on immigrant communities.
"Everyone is afraid," said Elidia Celestina, 19, who came from Mexico five months ago and lives in Ontario, one of the cities that has been targeted by the sweeps. "We're like mice, hiding in our homes," Celestina told the Chicago Sun Times.
Celestina is not alone. Many undocumented immigrants living in the targeted cities have been gripped by fear. Those cities include Ontario, in San Bernardino County; Corona, in Riverside County; and Escondido, in San Diego County. All the cities are at least 40 miles from the US/Mexico border, with Ontario being over 125 miles away.
According to local papers, immigration officials have picked up people at grocery stores, bus stops, and while walking down the street and driving in their cars.
"These sweeps have created a pervasive fear and even anger among Latinos regardless of their immigration status," Shaheena Ahmad Simons told the Associated Press. Simons is a Los Angeles attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), a nonprofit organization.
Alarm over the sweeps is so widespread that many immigrants in communities where they have not occurred are also scared. "Weâ€™ve had 70 percent of our patients not showing up for their [medical] appointments because theyâ€™re afraid to leave their homes," Carol Zapata, a local health care worker, told the Register-Pajaronian while protesting the sweeps during her lunch hour. Zapata is from Watsonville, in northern California, where immigration officials and police maintain that no such sweeps are occurring locally.
Celia Santiago recounted to the North-County Times how she narrowly avoided being caught by the Border Patrol in two separate recent incidents, while taking the bus to work from her home in Escondido.
"More than anything, I'm afraid for my children. Who will take care of them if I am caught?"
After thinking for a moment, Santiago answered her own question, "No one. I have no family here."
According to La Opinion, a Los Angeles-based Spanish language daily, the immigration police conducting the sweeps are part of the Mobile Patrol Group. The group consists of twelve officers and is based about 55 miles from the border at Temecula, California. The Pacific New Service reports that the Temecula team has jurisdiction across some 3,000 square miles, but has rarely, if ever, operated within that full range. The group is part of the Bureau of Border Protection, which was recently placed under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security.
Pacific News Service reports that after an arrest is made and it is determined that the suspect does not have legal resident status, the detainee is taken to detention centers to be processed for deportation
Steve McPartland, a spokesman with the agency in San Diego, told the North-County Times that the Patrol Group has arrested more than 400 people since the operation began. Some news agencies, such as the Pacific News Service, believe the figure is closer to 500.
"Those who didn't regularize their immigration status should have known that one day they would be found," RaÃºl Villarreal, spokesman for the US Customs and Border Protection, told the Pacific News Service. Villarreal argued that "enforcing the law" is nothing new and added that similar immigration enforcement activities have been conducted in Texas and the Southwest.
Local papers are full of accusations by leaders in the Latino community, who have charged that the operation launched by the Border Patrol amounts to racial profiling that is unfairly targeting Latinos. But Border Patrol officials told the LA Times that the arrests were not based on racial profiling. They said the arrests were routine business resulting from "consensual conversations" between immigration agents and passersby.
Furthermore, Pacific News Service reports the sweeps have even raised the ire of Mexican President Vicente Fox, who complained about "the abuses" and criticized the arrests during a recent trip to Chicago. Earlier in the week, President Fox instructed his foreign secretary to launch "an energetic protest" with the Bush administration, reports the Associated Press
While there is significant fear in the immigrant and Latino communities, not everyone is staying home. Up to 10,000 people marched in protests in Ontario, Pomona, Pasadena and other cities. The Register-Pajaronian reported that dozens of protests have been held statewide, with demonstrators holding signs reading "INS Out of California," "STOP!" "Fuera Migra" and "Proud Immigrant."
On Friday, Undersecretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson assured Southern California lawmakers that the detentions were legal. However, he acknowledged that the sweeps violate Department policy because he said they have been conducted without prior authorization from headquarters, reports the North County Times.
Nevertheless, Hutchinson spokesperson, Suzanne Luber, said she did not expect the officers involved to be disciplined. Gloria Chavez, a spokesperson for the Border Patrol told the North County Times that the sweeps will continue at least until Hutchinson issues a report on the detentions, due out next week.
Currently, a massive five-day march is planned for June 29 to protest the sweeps and demand accountability from officials. Jesus Corona of the United Farm Workers told the Register-Pajaronian that the march will go through King City, Greenfield, Soledad, Gonzales and Chualar, ending in Salinas on July 3.
Despite official claims to the contrary, the sweeps are unusual for the area that is now being targeted. The last time such raids were carried out far from the border -- back in 1994 -- mass protests shamed the Border Patrol and other agencies into changing the policy.